As the first major film festival to take place in the pandemic era, there’s a gravity to the 77th Venice Biennale simply by virtue of the show going on under such fraught global conditions.
Yet 2020 has also sparked an unprecedented awareness of racial discourse, and as such, it’s essential to note that there hasn’t been a Black member of the competition jury since 2004, when Spike Lee was part of a jury led by British director John Boorman. People of color have fared mildly better across the same 16-year period, with a recurring theme of one East Asian creative per 7-9 person jury.
This year, the jury that will decide a winner from the Official Selection is entirely white.
President Cate Blanchett leads Austrian screenwriter Veronika Franz, British director Joanna Hogg, Italian writer Nicola Lagioia, German director Christian Petzold, French actress Ludivine Sagnier and U.S. actor Matt Dillon (a last minute replacement for Cristi Puiu after the Romanian director said mask-wearing during his films was “inhuman”). Venice has a total of five juries featuring two people of color: British director Asif Kapadia on the Venice Virtual Reality Jury and Tunisian producer and festival director Dora Bouchoucha on the Best Debut Film Jury.
How does the composition of Venice’s competition jury compare with other big festivals? Variety looked at the last five years’ worth of main competition juries for Cannes, Berlin and Venice, going back an extra year with Cannes to make up for the lack of data this year. Venice has the worst representation for people of color at 12%, followed by Berlin at 15%, while Cannes fares best for the group with 18%
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The way these figures break down across different demographics is eye-opening. Across the last five years of competition juries, there have been no Black jurors at Venice; no Black jurors at Berlin (Dora Bouchoucha, who is Tunisian, is not identified as such); and five Black jurors at Cannes: Maimouna N’Diaye, Ava DuVernay, Khadja Nin, Will Smith and Rokia Traoré. Venice and Berlin make up their non-white representation by drawing talent from East Asian or Asian American creative communities, who form 80% of the people of color on their juries.
Why does any of this matter? Firstly, it sends a message to Black creatives that, regardless of their achievements, they are not welcome to high-profile festival appointments. If they are lucky enough to score a position, they will be alone in a sea of white faces, a fact generally true for people of color in these spaces.
Then, there’s the crucial networking element that’s been denied. Positions on festival competition juries lead to future positions on festival competition juries. The most striking example is Cate Blanchett serving as president in Venice two years after having the same honor in Cannes. Other examples include Guillermo del Toro (Cannes juror 2015, president of Venice jury 2018), Paweł Pawlikowski (Venice juror 2015, Cannes juror 2019) and Małgorzata Szumowska (Berlin juror 2016, Venice juror 2018).
This is evident even in the few instances of jurors of color showing up in these roles. Dora Bouchoucha, a rare rep for people of color in our Berlin data is now one of the two people of color on a Venice jury. Spike Lee was announced president of the canceled Cannes 2020 competition jury; the same name to bring to a halt Variety’s search through the Venice archives looking for a single instance of Black representation.
It is encouraging that, after routinely coming under fire for low numbers of female directors in the Official Selection, Venice has finally addressed that this year, with films directed by women making up 44% of the competition slate and festival director Alberto Barbera conceding past “embarrassing percentiles.”
The big festivals have been scrambling to save face along gender representation lines since 2018 when then Cannes jury president Cate Blanchett led a red carpet protest of 82 women to represent the number of female film directors that had premiered in competition in Cannes, in contrast with 1,645 male directors.
Later in the festival, Thierry Frémaux signed a Gender Equality Pledge committing Cannes to 50/50 gender parity by 2020, with the same commitment made later by Venice and Berlin among other global festivals.
What seems to have been forgotten is that days later, at the same Cannes edition, 16 Black and biracial actresses linked arms on the red carpet to protest racism in the French film industry. Diversity and representation slices in directions beyond just gender and in different roles including directors, programmers and juries.
Jury members develop relationships with the festival hosting them, as well as a name for themselves on the festival circuit, which makes future access easier, for both themselves and their films. Shutting people of color out of these roles is a subtle and insidious form of marginalization with a domino effect of repercussions.
The Venice Film Festival declined to comment on this article.